The Greatest Invention of the Twentieth Century is . . .

In my humble opinion, the greatest invention of the twentieth century was the bicycle derailleur shifting system.

This invention made the bicycle a realistic mode of transportation in a variety of terrains.

Average people with a few weeks of practice can travel on a modern multi-speed bicycle on moderately hills roads at an average speed of around 13 miles per hour.  With improved fitness a normal adult can average 15 miles per hour.  This makes daily commutes of 7-10 miles realistic.

Of course elite athletes race up steep mountains at speeds over 20 miles per hour, and they descend the other side of the mountain at 50 mph or more.

Before the derailleur was allowed in the Tour de France in 1938, racers had two gears, one on each side of the rear wheel.  Just before entering a mountain stage, for example, they could pull over, remove the rear wheel and flip it around.  In those days riders didn’t have support teams.  They had to carry tools and supplies in their pockets with spare tires slung over their shoulders.

Tullio Campagnolo invented the quick release in 1927 after frozen fingers prevented him from turning the wing nuts to release his wheel so he could flip it around.  He went on to found a bicycle parts company that eventually perfected (though they did not invent) the derailleur.  The device itself began to appear as early as 1905.  Its predecessors included complex systems of levers and pulleys.

The bicycle was invented early in the 1800s.  Hundreds of bicycle companies rose up in the United States.  By 1900 there were two large patent offices in the nation’s capital.  One was for bicycle inventions, the other was for everything else.

Susan B. Anthony once said,

The bicycle has done more to emancipate women than anything else.

The bicycle could also do a lot to emancipate us from dependence on oil.  The author’s of the book Bicycle Science estimate that a human powered by the equivalent number of calories in a gallon of gasoline could travel about 1000 miles.  Or, drinking milk instead of gasoline (remember milk is over 90% water) a rider could go about 99 miles.  If riders neglected to replenish all those calories, cycling could also help liberate us from the plague of obesity and diabetes.

Sources:

Jim Langley, Campy Only, Pedaling History.

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Peddling Peace

Marco Polo?

Marco Polo?

About ten years ago I went on a backpacking adventure on the Apallachian Trail with my daughter, who had just graduated from high school.  Some day I’ll describe some of our adventures, but right now I’m thinking of some of the interesting characters we met on the trail.  Some of them included men who had left the rat race of high-pressure careers to go for a long walk and sort things out.

Marco Löchner is a young man like that.  This December he began a bicycle Odyssee from Berlin that will take him to Hanoi.  He is going to interview the people he meets along the way.  Marco and his team just recently passed through Lithuania.  Maybe I should have deferred my Sabbatical and joined him on the adventure.  Maybe my colleague Wes would have even joined.

But I have had my own adventures and look forward to more in the future.  For now, here’s wishing Happy Trails to Marco and team.  (More here)

Did I say bicycle? Now that I have seen the video of Marcos peddling through the snow in Lithuania, his ride is acutally a 4-wheeled cycle with a trailer attached for his gear.  But it is definitely a human powered vehicle.  Check out the video from Lithuania TV by clicking here.

Who Needs Detroit?

super_record_cassetteI can have all my transportation needs met in Vicenza, Italy.  If congress would just forward me about 0.0001% of that bailout money, I could upgrade my bike with the new Campagnolo Super Record 11-speed system.  That’s 11 sprockets on the rear X 2 on the front, for a 22-speed setup.  Who needs internal combustion?  With this, I can tackle any hill.

But until the economy improves, I guess I’ll just have to limp along with my lowly 9-speed (X 3) setup.

Seriously, I am concerned about the workers in Detroit.  Mitt Romney says it’s their fault for wanting health insurance and the retirement pension they were promised.  He says the automakers should use the bankruptcy laws to absolve themselves of those burdensome obligations.  Part of the competitive disadvantage Detroit has is our system of health care.  The Republicans have always resisted publicly-funded health care (that’s why they hated their own candidate, McCain)–and now they are blaming workers for wanting health benefits from their employers.

But I say, who would we be saving Detroit for, if not for the workers?  And I do seriously hope some of the funds will be used to develop sustainable transportation options.

Why couldn’t Detroit compete with Italy in producing precision bicycle parts?